Data Privacy vs Data Portability

Government trying to force competition where neither the end users nor the tech innovators are ready for it.  It’s putting data at risk and creating a lot of extra work to serve no real purpose.

October 28, 2019

By: Bobby Casey, Managing Director GWP

data portability security

Convenience and privacy are often at odds. When I talk about cashless agendas, I point these things out knowing that I still use credit cards and other cashless mechanisms. I understand the convenience of digital transactions, and the subsequent appeal of going cashless, but that doesn’t negate the threat to privacy that comes with it.

Blockchain is the one exception that allows for the convenience of cashlessness and privacy. Sadly, cashless agendas have more to do with keeping the money supply digitized because everyone is printing more than they have in circulation.

The same is true with other tech. Seems there’s always some new law concerning consumer protection of privacy on the internet, while also demanding data accessibility.

The short answer is: Pick One.

The longer version is, that’s not compatible any more than privacy and credit card use. Essentially, that entails simultaneously making data accessible and inaccessible.

When you lay out the scenarios in which you want ease of access, people tend to be okay with it. Likewise, when you lay out the scenarios in which you want security, people agree with that. The problem is when you try to put both theories into practice.

We saw this with the end-to-end encryption that messaging apps like WhatsApp and Wickr offer. The DoJ and the FBI don’t appreciate how secure these applications are, and want a “ghost” feature, so they can look into “suspicious” individuals’ exchanges.

According to the US government there is such thing as “too secure”. But, they also like the populist appeal of being defenders of privacy. The obvious byproduct of that is conflicting policies that are not realistic or even of much use to end users.

The most recent out of Washington DC is the Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Act.

CNBC outlines the mandates of the bill:

The bill would mandate that tech companies allow users to retrieve their personal data in a structured and machine-readable format. They would also have to maintain transparent technical interfaces and allow competing platforms to access them. The proposal would let users work with third parties to update and manage their account and privacy settings.

This bill’s intention is to encourage competition by having a compatible data exchange between would-be competitors and existing larger social media platforms. I should be able to cross-apply my account information to all other platforms with ease.

Sounds simple enough. But it is neither simple nor necessary.

Competitors who stand a chance in gaining market share actually need to differentiate themselves from the existing platforms. No one is really looking for another Facebook where they can upload all their Facebook information.

Competition then needs to look for differentiating factors, not predicate their platforms off existing ones, or they stand no chance of success.

Facebook and other large players are on board with the concept of data portability. But in practice their own code writers are struggling to find a solution to balance the demands of privacy with the expectations for portability.

As Reason points out:

Some tech policy folks warn that it making it quick and painless to transfer whole social media histories and profiles between platforms could make it much easier for scammers and harassers to impersonate people online. Making everything easily portable can conflict with user privacy (and, sometimes, government-imposed privacy rules).

Compromising data is certainly reason enough to put the brakes on such a bill. If Cambridge Analytica taught us anything, it’s that transferring data can compromise its security. But even the functionality aspect is worth hitting the pause button.

If on one platform, I’m BCasey and on another I’m BobbyC because BCasey was already taken, how can a system decide which basic information will transfer and which will not?

Legislators argue that your data belongs to you! You should be able to take it with you wherever you go.

First off, many of the things people share are other people’s things. They share articles written by others. They share videos of other people’s animals. They share memes they didn’t themselves make.

Sharing is great! But if the argument is “your data is yours”, is it fair to say that everything you’ve shared is really YOURS? It’s on your feed.

On the one hand, we have the EU arguing for stronger enforcement of intellectual property rights (i.e. monitoring what is shared on the internet because that content isn’t theirs to share), and on the other we have legislators in the US saying if you shared it, and it’s on your feed, it’s yours.

That is a huge wrinkle that should be ironed out clearly before we get into what belongs to whom.

Second, even if it is determined that everything you share is by extension now yours, these larger platforms already allow you to download the information you’ve uploaded onto their sites. That lets you to pack your stuff and go.

What this bill is saying is, you’re entitled to transfer that data easily to another competing platform and these larger platforms must provide the API in which to do it. Saying this data is yours doesn’t entail that social media platforms are obligated to give you that particular infrastructure.

I get that legislators want to see a more robust market place for social media. And perhaps users of social media want that too. But so far, Minds, MeWe, and Diaspora have not seen the mass exodus of converts one would expect from a frustrated Facebook crowd.

Other advocates in favor of this bill are saying this is a good middle ground to breaking up the larger establishment social media juggernauts like Facebook or Twitter. But why do they need to be broken up?

The presupposition of these advocates is that people are tired of Facebook, but no one wants to rebuild their profile. I don’t know if I agree with that.

Profiles are not built the same on other platforms, because they serve a different function. New and different formats are what attract users. If the reason why Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, and now TikTok can all gain traction is because they all serve a different function in the social media space, then it’s not the portability of data that drives the industry.

Building a profile isn’t really that big of an obstacle. What is difficult is recruiting your network to come over to competing sites. That is typically the downfall of most would-be competitors: they can’t get people to come over because people would have to start all over again in building their networks.

It’s not the meme trove you’ve built up over the years that has you going back to Facebook. I would argue that people like building and modifying their profiles. Adding images and posts gives them the hit of social approval they seek, so they will continue to post new things to get the “likes”.

Their audience, on the other hand, took them years to cultivate. They had to weed through the creepers and jerks, and they had to find their social media tribe. If data portability was really the issue, then people wouldn’t bother creating sock accounts when they get sentenced to Facebook jail. They create sock accounts to come back to their network.

The reason why people aren’t amenable to another Facebook is probably the same reason people are locatively stuck: their friends and family are already built into that space.

Arguably, the reason why there is so little diversity and competition in the social media space is because of an odd cyclical phenomenon where no one leaves… so no one else leaves.

Breaking up Facebook from WhatsApp and Instagram won’t change this behavior or inclination. Nor will some mandate to make data both private and portable.

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